To answer that painfully relevant question, I need to backtrack. Last summer my Ugandan students went around the classroom introducing themselves to me: pastors, bishops, government officials, development consultants, organizational leaders. But what they left out of their impressive list of jobs were the animals they tended, the ground they tilled, the buildings they cleaned, the meals they cooked, the household items they made and sold: all a daily part of making ends meet. The juxtaposition of such high-power social positions with what seemed to me to be low-level unskilled labor caught me off guard. And it pushed me to re-evaluate my attitude towards menial service.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit… Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
So when I came across a family in our area looking for a weekend house-cleaner, I took the job. Why should I consider myself socially above being someone else’s domestic help? Why would my advanced degrees and higher-level teaching position somehow “over-qualify” me for menial work? My family needed the income, and more than that, I needed the training.
My reactions to the experience would reveal how much I needed it.
This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it is shaping me into the image of my Lord.
The first few weeks on the job I struggled with insecurity and self-pity, feeling a sudden, self-imposed separation from my church friends and social peers. Many of them hire house-help; now I was house-help. Though nothing had really changed, I suddenly felt very poor, begrudging each unnecessary expenditure my family made as if it were a personal statement on the value of my labor.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
The worst, though, was the irritability that came bubbling to my surface, revealing a deep sense of self-righteous entitlement that I hadn’t known was there. I wholeheartedly threw myself into the work, scrubbing someone else’s toilets and floors as a spiritual act of service. But having spent myself in sacrificial service there, I resented coming home to the mess and chaos of my own home. I grouchily barked out orders to my children, betraying my assumption that I deserved an exemption from going a third mile because I had already gone the second.
Week after week my eyes have been opened to the significance of Jesus’ decision to put on human clothes and become our “help.” Heavenly status laid aside. Immortality discarded. God made in our image, after our own likeness. Sore hands. Aching back. Wounded pride. Devalued labor.
Servanthood was an overflow of Jesus’ self-secure love:
fully compatible with His glorious position,
fully intermingled with His ongoing story.
But having spent Himself in serving the masses, He did not resent going the third mile, or the fourth, or the fifth. He had walked dusty miles, fed ungrateful crowds, washed stinky feet, and waited on disbelieving disciples. You would think that His ultimate act of service would finally be enough, that having His hands pierced and His body broken would earn Him an easy chair or at least some disability. But there He was the next weekend, glorified body and all, building a fire and cooking breakfast while His disciples were out fishing.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I still shudder at the thought of sitting around that fire, watching the Lord of glory fix my breakfast, seeing the holes in His hands as He served my plate. It challenges my feelings about service and menial labor to the core. Hard work wasn’t just a means to glory for Him. It was a delight in and of itself. Servanthood was an overflow of God’s self-secure love, fully compatible with His glorious position, fully intermingled with His ongoing story.
And I have the weekly privilege of sharing in that story. I get to lay aside my pretty clothes and plunge my hands into someone else’s mop bucket. This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it allows me to practice being like my Lord. Slowly, it is shaping me more into His image.
The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
I still struggle to live up to His example, to feel the rightness of becoming a domestic servant and to maintain a Christ-like attitude having done so. But God graciously gives me glimpses of how His social hierarchy works. A few Saturdays ago, a dear friend from church invited us to dinner. Exhausted from a hard afternoon’s work, I quickly cycled by home to swap my grubby jeans for a more polished skirt. Minutes later I relaxed by her blazing fire, surrounded by elegant paintings and sipping fine wine from crystal. As I watched this high-class woman’s hands serving me the lavish meal she had spent the day preparing, I fought back tears at the irony and the ecstasy of it all.
Exalted servants. Serving Lord.
Now that is an image for which I am gladly maid.